It is the classic before-and-after story. During their short span upon this mortal coil, the Rich Man has it all (expensive purple clothes, fine linen, sumptuous food), while the poor Lazarus begs for scraps from his table. The idea that the Rich Man does not want to grant him even these scraps is not spelled out in the biblical passage, but appears to be implied, and is certainly made explicit by artists concentrating on the first phase of the story. Hendrick ter Brugghen, in his painting in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, shows a servant gesturing to send the beggar packing, away from his master’s house.
Then, after the watershed of death, Lazarus, having born his sufferings on earth, is rewarded with eternal bliss in the bosom of Abraham in paradise, while the Rich Man is tormented by unquenchable thirst amidst the fires of hell. A chasm gapes between them at least as wide as the social and economic chasm that separated them during their lifetimes.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is the only biblical passage that describes what happens to the soul after death with any degree of specificity. For sinners, there are other more generic references in the Bible, to the everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:44–48), the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12), and the sleepless worm (Isaiah 66:24), suggesting degrees of unpleasantness in the afterlife. Yet, there are no other references to individual souls in either heaven or hell in Scripture.
In Byzantine art, the parable was therefore seized upon by artists as an authoritative image of the posthumous fate of the soul. For centuries, the Rich Man was the only individual to be shown inhabiting hell, sitting surrounded by flames and pointing in desperation at his thirsty mouth, as in the painting by an anonymous master from Crete shown here. He then—in Byzantine painting from the twelfth century onwards—became the model for other pictures of individual sinners subjected to various torments appropriate to the transgressions they had committed (Byzantine artists revelled in the concept of poetic justice even before Dante made it the guiding principle of his Inferno in the early fourteenth century).
Theologians have debated whether the descriptions of the parable should be taken literally or metaphorically, and whether the souls of the Rich Man and Lazarus are meant to be undergoing their respective rewards directly after death or in the period following the Last Judgement (when the final segregation of souls is meant to take place). For ordinary people, however, these finer points of theology were always irrelevant, and the parable offered a simple, direct message: indulge in riches and you will end in hell; endure poverty and you will find solace in heaven. This is likely to have been what the people from a small town on Crete in the fourteenth century thought when looking at the wryly comical representation of the Rich Man with his parched tongue on the wall of their church: ‘Serves you right, mate’.
Two works—the wall painting by the anonymous Cretan master and Hendrick ter Brugghen’s canvas—illustrate different phases of the parable, and seize upon different aspects of the story. The one is a stark, almost farcical rendition of the fate of the ‘bad guy’ of the story; the other an evocative rendition of the contrast between rich and poor in the first, earthly stage of the narrative. Their message may have overlapped, however, as the viewers of Ter Brugghen’s painting, too, would have been pondering the imminent reversal of fortunes of the two protagonists. They were probably rich themselves and it is to be hoped the painting would have inspired them to be charitable.
The last work included here is not an illustration of the parable, but an off-shoot of the rich iconographical tradition of hell that it engendered. The German satirist Georg Grosz (1893–1959) practised a brand of social commentary and used an expressionist idiom in drawings and paintings in the inter-war years in Germany, which ultimately led to him becoming a fugitive from the Nazi regime, living in exile in America. There, he applied, with evident relish, and echoing some of the black humour of the medieval tradition, the paraphernalia of the inferno and the idea of reaping the rewards for reprehensible behaviour to the archetypal bad guy of the twentieth century.
Detlev Sievers, Kat. 2005. Die Parabel vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus im Spiegel bildlicher Überlieferung (Kiel: Verlag Ludwig)
Lehtipuu, Outi. 2007. The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Leiden and Boston: Brill)
Wolf, Ursula. 1989. Die Parabel vom reichen Prasser und armen Lazarus in der mittelalterlichen Buchmalerei (Munich: Scaneg)
19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazʹarus, full of sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazʹarus in his bosom. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazʹarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazʹarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, 28for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’ ”